Aversion Therapy is “Like A Visit To The Dentist”


Aversion therapy: “Just like a visit to the dentist”


London, UK – August 2016


Peter Tatchell writes about his 1972 protest against Professor Hans Eysenck:

The London Medical Group (LMG) – a forum for doctors and medical students – held its regular symposium on 2 November 1972. The subject on that date was the medical use of electric shock and nausea aversion therapy, including to supposedly prevent or eliminate homosexuality.

An activist in the London Gay Liberation Front at the time, I went along to challenge this so-called “cure” therapy and the then prevalent psychiatric abuse of LGBT+ people.

Professor Hans Eysenck and Doctor Isaac Marks were the speakers at the symposium. Their theme was: Aversion Therapy and Patients’ Freedom. It was held at St. Thomas’s Hospital, one of London’s most prestigious medical establishments, located opposite the Houses of Parliament. The packed audience consisted of doctors and medical students from across the capital.

Professor Eysenck was in those days one of the world’s leading psychologists – specialising in personality theories and tests and, very controversially and unhappily, in claimed links between race, genetics and intelligence. In the Gay Liberation Front we branded him a “psycho Nazi”, because he also advocated reactionary theories on the nature and treatment of homosexuality that sometimes seemed to come close to echoing the homophobic “cure” ideas of Nazi leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler and the notorious SS Doctor, Carl Vaernet.

Much favoured in establishment and psychiatric circles, Eysenck was the best known public exponent of aversion therapy – even though it was not a major focus of his work. In various pronouncements he suggested that homosexuality is associated with perverse, abnormal, unnatural, neurotic and criminal behaviour. He endorsed the use of aversion therapy to cure what he saw as a misdirected sexual impulse.

Dr Marks, Eysenck’s co-speaker, was a Senior Lecturer and Consultant Psychiatrist at the world-renowned Maudsley Hospital in London and was known for his research into, and application of, aversion therapy.

Interestingly, because of the symposium’s controversial theme, and perhaps because the organisers feared disruptions, the LMG took the unprecedented step of closing this particular lecture to members of the public. Hoping to be able to blag my way in, I dressed in smart business attire to look official and authoritative and donned a doctor’s name tag that I lifted from reception, while the attendant was distracted.

As I arrived at the queue for the lecture theatre, I noted that attendees seemed to be showing something at the door – presumably a ticket or invitation. I did not have one. Pacing around the nearby corridors to find another way in, I did not find an alternative back entrance but I did stumble on some white coats and clipboards hanging on pegs in an alcove. I put on a coat and grabbed a clipboard. Returning to the lecture theatre, as the talk was about to start, the door checkers just waved me through. Obviously, I looked the part. Once inside, I discreetly discarded the white coat, clipboard and doctor’s name tag, to avoid any risk of being nabbed for theft.

During the symposium there were no speakers against aversion therapy. It was all rather one-sided, with those who spoke in favour being two famous psychologists of high repute in the medical profession.

The chair of the meeting repeatedly commended Eysenck and Marks, praising “these great men” and their “outstanding contributions to psychology.” Even I felt a bit intimidated by their awesome reputations. I was only 20 years old. I guess most of the audience might have also found it difficult to question such esteemed authorties.

Professor Eysenck began by emphasising that there was “no relationship between aversion therapy and punishment….it does not involve sadistic motivations…..Neither does aversion therapy seek to act as a deterrent. The fact is that aversion therapy is used for the patients’ own good.”

I allowed this and similar statements to pass unchallenged for a while. But having given Eysenck a fair hearing, when similar statements were later repeated I interjected. How could it be for the patient’s good if people, having undergone aversion therapy, later become chronic depressives and impotent? My assertion was based on the experience of a gay friend who had undergone this treatment with very adverse results.

Somewhat taken aback by this unscripted dialogue – as opposed to the intended monologue (no Q and A was scheduled) – Prof Eysenck continued: “Aversion therapy is only undertaken where it is of the patient’s own choice.”

Interjecting again, I mentioned the cases of gay men who were virtually blackmailed into undergoing aversion therapy when it was allegedly offered by the courts as an alternative to prison (this was the era when many aspects of gay life remained criminalised). Vulnerable men were also sometimes pressured into it by their families or church. Those who “voluntarily” underwent treatment often felt obliged to do so because of internalised shame about their sexuality and because of the then intolerable repression of homosexuals by society. Remove the stigma and oppression, I argued, and no gay or bisexual man would ever volunteer.

I also raised the question of LGBT+ people being induced to volunteer by an exaggeration of the success rate, silence about the high incidence of failure, the playing down of the pain and discomfort involved and by not informing patients about the often negative physical and psychological consequences.

None of my queries got an answer. But having made my point, I allowed the lecture to continue without further interruptions – for a while.

Notably rattled after my interjections, Prof Eysenck outlined the principles of aversion therapy which, he explained, were based on Pavlov’s experiments on conditioned reflexes. He said it was “used to change the emotions, where the person cannot change them of his own free will…. By associating emotion with pain or fear, the emotional response can be re-conditioned.”

Then he went on to explain how, in the case of gay men, one form of aversion therapy involved the inducement of nausea by means of administered drugs, while the patient viewed photos of naked men or men in swimwear. Thereby the patient is supposed to learn to associate homosexuality with sickness and fear. He mentioned that whilst photographs were used normally, the actual performance or witnessing of a same-sex act would be preferable and produce better results.

Eysenck then boldly stated: “There is a success rate of 50 percent, which justifies its use as much as any method.”

At this point my patience waned. I challenged him to substantiate his claim of 50 percent success, describing how most gay men who had undergone such treatment remained “uncured” and frequently became deeply unhappy psychologically and emotionally, with one such man describing its effects as turning him into an “asexual vegetable” incapable of sexual or emotional satisfaction. I offered these failures as an explanation for the reported decrease in the use of aversion therapy over the previous two years.

Prof Eysenck responded, suggesting that “50 percent success was better than no success at all.”

I questioned his ends justify the means mentality, and his use of the rather half-baked success rate to justify the continuation of aversion therapy. On both counts it was, I suggested, ethically and practically dubious to say the least.

Eysenck then argued that the therapy hardly merited concern as it was used so little. So why was he making an issue of it by hosting a special lecture on the subject and going out of his way to publicly defend it?

To quieten any fears, he reassured the audience that the pain and discomfort of the electric shock version of aversion therapy was greatly exaggerated: “It is just like a visit to the dentist….It is no different from any other form of therapy.” Just like a visit to dentist? No different from popping an aspirin for a headache? A bizarre suggestion, I thought.

He went on to describe psychoanalysis as far more traumatic than aversion therapy and entailing greater distress to the patient. Aside from the fact that this assertion is disputable, does the fact that treatment A has bad side effects mean that we should not fuss about the bad side effects of treatment B? Maybe they are both bad and morally indefensible.

Prof. Eysenck finished by enthusiastically declaring that “there is no ethical principle involved in aversion therapy that is not involved in any psychological treatment.” Although a controversial and contestable claim, the audience responded with loud and prolonged applause.

The second speaker, Dr Isaac Marks tried to dispel any doubts that my interjections may have raised by citing the film “A Clockwork Orange”. He asked how many people had seen the movie. Most of the audience indicated that they had. He then asked how many had actually seen aversion therapy. Three people out of the audience of over 100 indicated that they’d seen it. Perhaps satisfied that few people were in a position to question his authority and claims, he said A Clockwork Orange was a totally inaccurate, exaggerated portrayal of aversion therapy. Perhaps it was but the film was based on the same principles as the medical version.

Outlining the circumstances under which the medical profession was entitled to use the treatment, Dr Marks proposed that this should be when the “patient asks for help” or when “society asks to be relieved of the burden of an individual”. His second criteria had particularly frightening implications. With that rationale, it could potentially be used against any minority that incurred social disapproval – not just LGBT+ people, but also people deemed to be social misfits and outsiders – or even just those who were too unconventional and unorthodox.

To justify this criterion, Dr Marks drew a very questionable analogy. He said: “For instance no-one objects when people with smallpox are quarantined…or that sadists and murderers are removed from society.” On the basis of this analogy, he justified the use of aversion therapy on the individual where it was “in society’s interest.”

Unable to allow such a statement to pass unquestioned, I demanded to know how LGBT+ people could in any way be compared to smallpox carriers, sadists or murderers. This intervention plunged the symposium into chaos.

Amid the uproar, I attempted to point out that the use of aversion therapy “in society’s interests” could so easily be abused. Wasn’t this the logic used by the Nazis to persecute Jewish, disabled and gay people, Jehovah Witnesses, left-wingers, trade unionists and others?

I was on the receiving end of verbal broadsides from the podium and the audience alike. It was pandemonium.

Dr Marks asked me to leave. I refused to do so. Stepping back and returning to his seat, he said he would not continue while I was in the room. Ten heavies from the audience then surrounded and grabbed me. I was punched and kicked as they dragged me from the symposium and dumped me outside the hospital.

As I was being removed, the parting comment from the chairman was that I had spoiled the whole lecture. What a shame. Needless to say, he had apparently never thought of the many LGBT+ people whose lives had been harmed by aversion therapy.

Perhaps it was pure coincidence but the following year all reports of the use of aversion therapy in the UK ceased. It could have continued undercover for a while longer but I was never aware of that.

The 1972 protest was a huge embarrassment and PR disaster for the medical and psychiatric professions. Together with changing public and medical mores, what I did may have helped finally seal the fate of an already declining and discredited therapeutic practice. I hope so. Indeed, many years later, I met a doctor who had been in the audience when he was young. He described my actions as rude, disruptive – and very effective! It had helped change his mind, not only about aversion therapy but also about how the medical and psychiatric world viewed and treated LGBT+ people.

  • Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for LGBT+ and other human rights since 1967. He is Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation. For more information, to receive email bulletins or to make a donation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org


This is an edited version of an article which was published in Gay News No. 11, 1972

© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1972. All rights reserved.